Robert Panara, writer, poet, professor and pioneer of deaf studies, dies at 94


Mr. Panara, a preeminent scholar in the field of deaf studies, a writer and poet, and a noted professor at institutions including Gallaudet University, died July 20 at 94. (Courtesy of RIT/NTID)

Robert Panara could not hear the noise in Yankee Stadium the day in 1931 when Babe Ruth emerged from the dugout, strode toward him and extended his hand. Mr. Panara, then 10 years old, was deaf. He had lost his hearing several months earlier — a casualty of spinal meningitis — and his father had organized the ballpark encounter hoping that the thrill might bring it back.

“Shaking hands with the Bambino was a dream come true,” Mr. Panara told an interviewer years later. “But I still remained as deaf as a post.”

Mr. Panara grew up to become a preeminent scholar in the field of deaf studies, a writer and poet and a noted professor at institutions including Gallaudet University in Washington and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, N.Y.

Mr. Panara died July 20 at a nursing home in Rochester. He was 94 and had heart ailments, said his son, John Panara.

Growing up in Depression-era New York, Mr. Panara received few of the services or accommodations available today for deaf or hearing-impaired students. Because he had post-lingual deafness — the loss of hearing after the acquisition of language — he was able to communicate through lip-reading and spoken English and continued his education in mainstream public classrooms.

He learned sign language after high school and pursued higher education at what was then Gallaudet College. Literature — his passion since he lost his hearing — became the focus of his study.

Mr. Panara taught for nearly two decades at Gallaudet before becoming the first deaf professor at NTID, which was established by an act of Congress in 1965 and is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology. A Shakespearean scholar, Mr. Panara started the institute’s drama program and taught classes on literature and creative interpretation through sign language.

“His style in teaching was always appreciated by students — both deaf and hearing,” Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz, who previously led NTID, wrote in an e-mail.

Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Panara wrote articles and books that helped establish deaf studies as a formal line of academic inquiry.

The field “helped to open doors and open minds,” his biographer and friend, Harry G. Lang, wrote in an e-mail. “People realized that deaf persons had been contributing in meaningful ways for centuries, and young deaf people should be given the chance.”

Mr. Panara articulated through poetry his experience of deafness. Among his most noted poems was “On His Deafness,” written in 1946:

My ears are deaf, and yet I seem to hear

Sweet nature’s music and the songs of man

For I have learned from Fancy’s artisan

How written words can thrill the inner ear

Just as they move the heart, and so for me

They also seem to ring out loud and free.

Robert Frederick Panara, the son of Italian immigrants, was born July 8, 1920, in the Bronx. He graduated from Gallaudet in 1945 and received a master’s degree in English from New York University in 1948. Before joining the Gallaudet faculty, he taught at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains.

In the 1960s, Mr. Panara helped found the Connecticut-based National Theatre of the Deaf, which remains a venerable company. He helped translate into sign language Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Othello,” among other dramatic works, according to Lang.

In 1965, John W. Gardner, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary of health, education and welfare, named Mr. Panara to an advisory board that helped oversee the development of a national technical school for the deaf. Mr. Panara retired from NTID in 1987.

He published his poetry in the volume “On His Deafness and Other Melodies Unheard” (1997) and helped compile books including “The Silent Muse: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by the Deaf” (1960) and a nonfiction guide, “Great Deaf Americans.” He was the subject of Lang’s 2007 biography, “Teaching From the Heart and Soul.”

Mr. Panara’s wife of 56 years, the former Shirley Fischer, died in 2003. Survivors include his son, John Panara of Rochester; a sister; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 1957, Mr. Panara figured in an episode that joined the “lore of the American deaf community,” according to Lang. That year, Elizabeth II of England made her first official visit to the United States as queen. She was scheduled to attend a football game at the University of Maryland — with no reporters to be seated near her.

In pursuit of full coverage of the event, Life magazine enlisted Mr. Panara and a Gallaudet student as lip readers. Equipped with binoculars, they observed the queen from afar.

“How many men are on the team?” she wished to know. “Why do they gather that way?” she asked, observing a huddle.

Based on the translation, Life reported that the queen was “a remarkably savvy spectator with a quick eye to pick out and a ready tongue to ask about the pertinent points of the game.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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